Expert Insights: Future Uses of Space

What does the future hold for the ways in which space will be utilised? In this Expert Insights podcast, James Black and Linda Slapakova discuss the potential uses of space out to 2050, ranging from defence, manufacturing, climate protection, and tourism.


Catherine McShane

Hello and welcome to Expert Insights with RAND Europe. In our podcast today, we are discussing a recently released report on the future uses of space, which explores how we are starting to access and use space in a variety of different ways. It looks ahead to all the potential uses of space out to the year 2050, and what implications this will have for the UK space sector. I'm Cat McShane from RAND Europe and with me are two of the authors on the study, James Black and Lin Slapakova, who will be giving their thoughts and insights on the main findings in the study.

Before we start, could you briefly introduce yourselves and your roles? Starting with you, Lin.

Linda Slapakova

Yeah, for everyone. My name is Lin Slapakova. I'm a senior analyst at RAND Europe. I work in the Defense and Security team, predominantly in the field of military personnel and the armed forces community, but I've done a lot of research on emerging technologies and futures and foresights.

James Black

Hi, everyone. I'm James Black. I'm a research leader at the Defense and Security Team with Lin. I also wear a second hat as European lead of something called the RAND Space Enterprise Initiative, or RSEI, which is a hub for all of RAND's space -elated research, analysis, and gaming.

Catherine McShane

Thanks both. Now, the study states that recent years have witnessed major changes in how humans are using space. So, the first thing I want to know is why is that happening? Why are we hearing so much more about space activities now than, say, ten years ago? Or at least that's how it appears from a non-expert point of view. If I could put that to you first, James.

James Black

Absolutely. So, I mean, it's worth saying that space has always been a big part of our lives, at least in our lifetimes. So, if you go back to the space race and the Cold War and the Apollo missions and all these sorts of things, those were very exciting from a scientific perspective and a discovery perspective, and they obviously inspired not only generations of scientists, but pop culture and all sorts of other things. But they also drove lots of deeper changes in the way society works nowadays and the way the economy works. So, we're all now increasingly reliant on our mobile phones. We're reliant on GPS to find out where we're going. And this is true also for businesses, for supply chains. And so, space affects us in lots of ways we might not understand. You go about your average daily life — every time you're making a credit card payment, every time you're calling up a delivery service on your app — all these sorts of things are directly dependent on space. Not to mention, of course, the satellite TV you might be watching in the evening.

So, that's always been true, but that's intensifying now and looking to the future. And the big driver of that ultimately is falling costs and difficulty of getting things into space. So it's, of course, very difficult to escape the Earth's gravity and space is a very harsh environment in which to operate, but nonetheless, it is getting easier. And a big driver, there has been the commercialization of space activities.

So, where things used to primarily be about governments or militaries who would work on big expensive rocket programs and relatively few actors who could access space. Nowadays that's becoming commercialized. We're seeing companies like Space X and Blue Origin and Virgin who are offering access to space much, much cheaper as a result of a bunch of technological advances, but most notably the advent of reusable rockets. So, these are rockets that you don't just spend a lot of money and effort building and then get to use once, which is obviously very expensive, but rather things that you can recover, refurbish, and reuse, and therefore drive down the cost. And as soon as you drive down the cost of getting to space, a whole load of different activities in space suddenly become commercially and economically viable. And so, you start to see this kind of ecosystem of new services — those popping up.

So, there's a whole lot of innovation going on and space is becoming much more congested, much more contested, and also much more competitive.

Catherine McShane

So, does this apply to the UK, as well? The report focuses on the implications for the UK sector. Do we even have one? How is this relevant to the UK?

James Black

So, the UK has a long-standing interest in space, and it does have some areas of real niche strength already. So, people might not necessarily think of the UK as a major space player in the way that, say, the U.S. or Russia historically were and China now is. But it is, it is up there as one of the kind of next tier of medium-sized actors, along with people like France and Germany and others. It hasn't invested as much in the sector as some of those other countries, but it does have some real, kind of, areas of strength. Examples on say the military side are it's got something called Skynet, which despite the the name which conjures images of a Terminator movie, is is just a constellation of communication satellites, which are very high quality, and that's on the, kind of, fifth or sixth generation of satellites there. And then in the industrial side, again, UK has a lot of strengths in things like small satellites, for example. So, designing the kind of miniaturized satellites that are increasingly important in the sector and which have all sorts of interesting applications.

So, it does have a good basis as a lot of, you know, academic research strengths and strong universities. And it's been actively involved in multinational initiatives for things like the European Space Agency, of which it's a member. But there's been obviously a increase in ambition, I think, in the last two or three years. So, there was a decision to create the National Space Strategy for the UK, which was something that it really hadn't had before. So, to try and bring a bit more coherence and vision and ambition to what the UK government was doing in terms of supporting the space sector, both for its own activities as a kind of customer for space. So, you know, launching its own satellites, using its own space services, but also using the government's levers as a regulator and as someone that can support industry and support academia and work with other partners in other nations.

And so that's really where RAND was brought in to try and take that long-term view and look out to 2050 and really ask what might the space environment look like in 2050? What might be the different actors who were involved in that? Might — what might be the different applications and use cases for space services at that point and really try and stretch the government's thinking a bit, because it's very easy to just focus on, you know, what exists now or what exists in the past. But if we look at the rate of growth in space activities and the rate of growth in the space economy, we really can't see that where things will be in 2030 will look much like they do now, let alone 2040 or 2050.

Catherine McShane

Okay, James, thank you. That was a really helpful backdrop and a good point to turn to Lin now. So, we've got that sort of setting and that what you were looking out to 2050 and the potential future uses of space. And I know the study team identified around two hundred potential uses for space. So, I was wondering, I know it's probably going to be quite hard, if you could sort of boil down to sort of a few of the main trends or findings, if there were some main sort of themes in the findings of what we could expect to see developing in space. And then perhaps if there's things that you found particularly surprising or interesting about these new space activities.

Linda Slapakova

Yeah, absolutely. I think that — so the first overarching finding, I think, for us was, as you say, that the sheer breadth and diversity of potential uses of space after 2050. As you say, we identify approximately, I think, two hundred, and they also stretched across fifteen different sectors from defense and security to telecommunications, but also sectors like agriculture, climate and the environment, but also culture and entertainment. So, there's there's really quite a lot of diversity in how space might be used in the future. So, that was I think the first kind of overarching finding is we found quite a lot of things, and I think that that breadth and diversity was greater than than we initially expected.

But in terms of some of the more cross-cutting trends that we started identifying maybe in these use cases and also looking at kind of the more, more cross-cutting trends in the future space economy, I think that the first one is that, as James said, the future space economy is likely to be very multi-stakeholder in nature. So, you will see an increasing number, but also diversity of actors and stakeholders being engaged in space activity, but also benefiting from space. And all of these actors will have different interests and capabilities for using space in the future. And hence, also the value proposition that that space poses to these to the stakeholders will likely increase, but also change out to 2050. So, the space economy, from that point of view, from the stakeholder and user point of view, will look very different in the future.

The second trend is that just given the increasing reliance of the terrestrial economy on space-enabled services, and as James mentioned, that's everything from Earth observation to satellite-enabled communications. Those kinds of services are likely to be used by, you know, different sectors of the terrestrial economy, and hence the space economy and our own economy will be increasingly intertwined and integrated, and that integration is also likely to to be even stronger in the future. So, that's kind of the second trend that we've seen.

And the last trend to mention is that within space itself, the space markets are also likely to have various linkages. And that's, I think, particularly the the, kind of, exciting part that we've seen is thinking about the different ways that different uses of space could converge to produce really potentially groundbreaking paradigm shifts in how space is used in the future. So, to give an example, you know, if you think about different developments in how people get to space and then use space-based — space-based materials, but also how they transport themselves through space, all of these different developments might be incremental in nature on their own, but then when they converge, they produce potentially really, really interesting shifts in how we use space overall. So, that's kind of the final trend is that convergence and different uses of space on their own.

The final thing to mention is that, obviously, developments in what we call the upstream space economy are going to be really important, as well. So, thinking about how we send satellites to space and different spacecraft to space, how that will change is also going to produce a lot of developments and changes in how we use space itself. And here, you know, we talk in the report a lot about new and emerging technologies, but also the development of new concepts for spaceflight and how that will drive how the different uses of space will evolve. So, that's kind of the final interesting trend that we engage with in the report.

Catherine McShane

That's really interesting. So there's lots of different things all happening at the same time. So, you can imagine a really sort of fast turnaround, a really fast innative space in space. So, is there anything that people at home would be sort of — wow, I never realized that they would be doing this in space or that there's the potential for this? Because I know there were lots of very interesting things that space could be used for that were sort of mentioned in the report.

Linda Slapakova

Yeah. So, I think I think that there was many potentially surprising use cases that we found, and I think just there's many that we thought, you know, sound potentially quite incremental in nature but relate to, again, quite high impact shifts, I guess, in the space economy. And I think even starting from things that don't sound particularly exciting, like space-based constructions or repair and engineering activities, in that sector you see things like on orbits like satellite servicing, but then also using 3D printing to construct something in space. And that can range from everything like pieces of a satellite to actually lunar or Martian bases, which will then enable people to potentially, you know, use space in a very different way. So, I think that there's there's lots of potentially interesting things there. I'll let James jump in.

James Black

Yeah, I think it really is a wide variety. And I mean, our report picks up everything from, you know, the impacts on the agricultural sector, the financial sector to transport, and so on. But I think, as Lin's rightly said, it's often the convergence of multiple use cases that comes with potentially the most cha — kind of, game changing. So, you could look at, for example, the way some nations are looking to asteroid mining. So, sending probes out, recovering, you know, rocks and lumps of ice floating around relatively close to the Earth in space. And obviously, everything in space is very far away, but relatively close. And then actually stripping those for the resources, which might potentially be worth, you know, billions or trillions of pounds or dollars or euros, and then making use of those resources, either bringing them back to Earth for certain purposes, for manufacturing and so on, or actually starting to use them in space and then starting to mine helium, for example, from the moon, turn that into hydrogen and oxygen and fuel and so on. You can suddenly start to see this kind of burgeoning little ecosystem where you've got resources being extracted in space, you've got some sort of manufacturing activities going on in space, you have a whole load of satellites sort of spacecraft moving things around, making that work, and then a whole load of support services that are then needed for those things. So, you then need repairs, you then need refueling, you need security, you need tracking and surveillance and all these other things.

So, so there's like these kind of big, ambitious visions. And if you listen to people like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, who run two of the world's largest space companies, in addition to their terrestrial kind of billionaire activities, you know, they talk about one day trying to move all sorts of activity off the planet. So, move a lot of the polluting activities and the things that generate greenhouse gas emissions and all the heavy industry, move that into space eventually and also try and start, you know, settling other planets like Mars. And that starts to sound very big and, you know, sci-fi. But actually, there's also surprising stuff that is much smaller and more kind of lowkey, but still, you know, still rather remarkable. So, we also picked up things like the fact there are companies out there who are looking to brew beer in space or, you know, grow coffee in space. And some of that is just for the novelty. But you can start to see actually certain manufacturing processes that are easier in a low-gravity environment than they are on Earth for various reasons.

So, there's a whole wide variety out there. And I think I think this is really the point. This is just that we don't know exactly what the future is going to look like, and nobody does. But as Lin was saying earlier, it starts to look a lot more like just the terrestrial economy. So, the space economy begins to become more and more diverse and more and more like the whole kind of wide range of things that happen on Earth.

Catherine McShane

That's really helpful and really interesting. Thanks both. Needing to sort of round up what we — our discussion time now. So, I was thinking could you quite briefly go into what the findings of the study might mean for the UK government, how are they going to use this information? And if you could say, you know, what's next for RAND in the sector. Are you going to be doing more work on space, which it sounds like it, considering you're running the space enterprise section of it.

James Black

Yeah, I hope so. I think it means I'm not doing my job very well if we're not. I mean, to answer your first question, so our work kind of fed directly into the UK space agency while it was drafting a national space strategy. That's now come out. And so, UK government is really in the phase of implementing that for the next, you know, five or ten years. I think our our findings where they kind of hit into that was really emphasizing the future-proofing of policy, which is really difficult because, you know, governments, particularly democratic systems such as the UK, they obviously think in relatively short-term electoral cycles. It can be quite hard to really think long term. And especially with an area like space, you know, it can seem like why, why am I spending my money on this when there are other things, you know, literally closer to home, down on Earth that we could be focusing on.

But space has got these huge threats, huge risks, but also huge benefits. And so, it's an area that government really needs to pay attention to. And as our report really found, it's it's changing so quickly that government really needs to try and get ahead of the curve as best they can and try and anticipate some of the opportunities and challenges in this domain, rather than just reacting to them five or ten or fifteen years down the line. And you're starting to see that, you know, UK government is thinking and talking openly about things that perhaps five, ten years ago might have seemed kind of science fiction. So, it's talking about doing space-based, you know, power generation where we have huge solar panels out in space that generate power that we then beam down to Earth. Think conversations like that, whether they go anywhere on a particular program, but they're conversations that we weren't having ten, fifteen years ago, and it really just reflects the pace of change, and also the growing ambition from the UK. So, I think that was the the first key finding was really just trying to be more future-proof, be more future aware.

I think the second bit was really pushing for more, kind of, cross-government cooperation. So, this is something the UK government's been taking action on, not because of the findings of our report. I should stress that was happening already before our report, but certainly we've we've fed into that kind of broad theme. So, they've set up a National Space Council, which is a subcommittee of the UK cabinet. They've got all sorts of cooperation going on between the UK space agency, which is a civil agency, between the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which does a lot of space policy, and then with UK Ministry of Defence and a new space command which obviously do things on the military side. That's a big area of emphasis in our report and again, a big focus for the government.

And then the other the other kind of key areas really coming from our analysis around working better with with industry. So, in this case it's the UK industry. So, having a proper industrial strategy for the space sector, which is something that's kind of been worked up. Figuring out how to make use of the government's investments, whether in R&D or in acquiring and operating its own satellites to drive change in the industry and the supply chain. Working out how to regulate this new environment. You know, how do we regulate space launches from the UK? And the UK is hoping to have the first such launch later this year in 2022. It should be the first launch in, kind of, continental Europe. It's also about developing the people and the skills to make all this work, because it's no good having an industry or perfect regulation if you don't have the people and skills ultimately to make it work. And this is an area where growing the skills is a real, real challenge but also a priority. So, we're seeing a kind of National Space Academy being set up, for example.

And then the other real area of emphasis from our research was around working with allies and partners. So, this is not something that, you know, the UK or really any country can do alone. Space is a big place. Getting there, as I said, is getting cheaper, but it's still complicated. And really making the most of the best science and technology requires collaboration across borders to share ideas, drive down costs, share risk, these sort of things. So, the UK is also working up its kind of international partnerships with the U.S., with Europe, with Australia, with Japan and a whole load of other places. And there's lots of kind of exciting programs going on there.

And so a final area then, really, where the UK is quite active, and which was another final point of emphasis from our findings was the need to, kind of, preemptively and proactively shape global governance of space. So, as it does become more congested and contested and competitive, it's really important that we we don't let it turn into this, kind of, unregulated Wild West and we don't end up with unanticipated consequences and threats and risks from this explosion of activity in that domain.

So, the UK's been pushing hard in the United Nations. It's taking a leading role, defining something called norms of responsible behavior. And a good example, perhaps, that people can understand would be the issue of debris. You know, if I'm generating lots of debris in space because I'm leaving old satellites up there or rocket parts or whatever, that's not just affecting me, that's affecting everybody who uses space, because there's all of that debris is flying around, potentially endangering other people's satellites or spacecraft or even, you know, humans on the International Space Station and other places in future. So, there's a lot of work going on for the United Nations, for example, to try and make space safer, more secure and more sustainable as an environment. And the UK has been a big component on that.

So, I guess to close out what RAND's doing, you know, we're feeding into all of that with research and analysis. We've been doing a lot of work on the impact of emerging technology. We've been looking at the UK space science space and its strengths and weaknesses. We've been looking at space governance and supporting some of the the initiatives through places like Wilton Park and the Foreign Office and promoting those those kind of norms of responsible behavior that I just mentioned. And then we've also been thinking about how space connects to other domains. So things like cyber, you know, what's the cybersecurity for satellites, for example, or other policy areas like climate. So, how does space help us deal with climate change and environmental change down on Earth? So really, you know, we continue to do all those sorts of things for the UK and obviously we're working for other governments around the world, as well as with the third sector and and others to really just try and increase awareness of space, increase awareness of all the opportunities and challenges, and then try and find ways of, you know, tackling all of those issues in this robust and evidence-based way as as we can.

Catherine McShane

Thank you. This is such an interesting and exciting area, so I look forward to seeing what comes up next for RAND in this area. That's all we have time for in this session. So, thank you for listening and thank you to our podcast participants, James and Lin, for joining us on Expert Insights with RAND Europe. The study discussed today was the Future Uses of Space Out to 2050: Emerging Threats and Opportunities for the UK National Space Strategy. The study was funded by the UK Space Agency. If you are interested in finding out more about this research, please visit our website at RAND Europe is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that helps to improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.